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Opinion: Scientific insight vital for effective public policy

by Jun. 1, 2012, 1:19 PM

Andrew Steigerwald
Andrew Steigerwald (Courtesy of Materials Research Society)

Every so often we hear stories about our national legislators that make us cringe. What irks me is when politicians display very basic scientific misunderstandings that would take little effort to get correct, like mistaking carbon monoxide for carbon dioxide or describing the Internet as a “series of tubes.” Not because of the wrongness per se, but because I imagine the possibility of wide-ranging policy being based on such inaccuracies, anecdotes and half-truths.

This September I will go to Washington, D.C., as a 2012-2013 Materials Research Society/Minerals, Metals and Materials Society Congressional Fellow. For 12 months I’ll work in a congressional office acting as a science adviser and gaining hands-on experience in the legislative process. This, I’m sure, will be an amazing learning experience. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between science and technology and issues like economic growth, national security and public health, and look forward to learning how government can facilitate such relationships. It’s exciting to think that I’ll have the chance to play even a small part in developing smart, effective policy (and scary that people might listen to me).

My desire to leave the lab for the legislature is driven partly by the urge to seek new challenges, partly by an interest in issues like energy policy and critical minerals strategy, but also partly by a sense of responsibility to make use of my scientific background in areas where technical experience is in short supply. These days almost every issue either involves scientific and technical considerations or contains core technological aspects. This is an inevitable consequence of the modern era.

As the influence of science and technology on society continues to increase, the presence of the scientific community within the policy sphere must likewise increase. This means engaging in greater numbers, going beyond the role of science advocates and even beyond the role of outside advisers. Ideally we should have as much technical expertise inside the policymaking process as is realistically possible.

In my view the central problem we face is as follows: Policy will increasingly involve complex scientific concepts, but this does not mean that the available technical input will automatically match those needs. Given this, I believe that if scientists don’t make the conscious choice to get involved with policymaking at an intimate level, the nation will experience a rather steep long-term decline in quality of life, security, and even culture. The upshot is that scientists must be willing to confront the negative aspects of politics in order to work towards better national policy.

In the fall I’ll head to D.C. to get my hands dirty. At a practical level I hope to be able to provide clarity and input where needed to create successful, effective legislation. I also hope to share my experience with others, so that those interested may see the positive benefits of spending time in government. It’s entirely possible that next September I will reconsider my position, but for now I’m keeping my fingers crossed and looking forward to a positive experience.